After years of aggressive anti-tobacco campaigns aimed at teenagers, students have largely rejected smoking, but many have tried vaping, sending school leaders scrambling to revise discipline policies and drug prevention classes to confront the new trend of inhaling flavor-infused nicotine vapor.
Adding urgency to those efforts: A small, sleek device that could be easily mistaken for a USB drive has joined the market of vaping and e-cigarette products. The device, called a Juul, has surged in popularity in the last year, in part because its low-profile design allows students to easily conceal their habit and inhale the flavored nicotine vapor in school restrooms, hallways, and even classrooms undetected.
Like many trends among teenagers, vaping and “juuling” gained a foothold among young people long before adults and school administrators realized the scale of the problem, principals said, and now they are rushing to catch up.
“I think it’s everywhere, and my school is no different,” said Francis Thompson, the principal of Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Conn. “I think it’s the next health epidemic for kids.”
Some students are open about their vaping habits, sharing Youtube videos about how to do tricks, like blowing rings and “ghosting,” slang for exhaling a plume of vapor and quickly drawing it back into the mouth. In some videos, students as young as 13 share tips for concealing Juuls and other vaporizers in the sleeves of their hoodies so they can be used in school hallways and in hollowed-out markers to carry them in their backpacks without getting caught.
“You get super buzzed off of it,” said Kyler, a teenager who posted a video about getting suspended for having a Juul.
Juul Products Contain Nicotine
E-cigarettes and other vaping products, like Juuls, are pitched as alternatives to traditional cigarettes for adults who want to kick the habit. But health experts and anti-smoking groups say they’ve quickly grown a secondary market among minors attracted to the novelty and flavors like mango, caramel candy, and gummi bear.
“It is crucial that the progress made in reducing conventional cigarette smoking among youth and young adults not be compromised by the initiation and use of e-cigarettes,” said a 2016 U.S. Surgeon General’s report.
Vaping can quickly lead to nicotine addiction, the report warned, which may lead some teens to start smoking traditional cigarettes.
In 2017, 5.4 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders reported smoking a cigarette in the last 30 days, according to Monitoring the Future, a nationally representative student survey administered by the University of Michigan. Twelve percent of those students reported vaping in that time frame.
Youth health advocates have long pushed for tighter regulations on the sales and marketing of e-cigarettes. In March, a group of seven public health and medical groups sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over a delay in implementing such regulations.
As that debate raged in recent years, new products emerged, like Juul, which currently makes up about 60 percent of e-cigarette sales tracked by Nielsen data.
The device, smaller and more discreet than its competitors, has attracted new users, some principals say. An April survey by the Truth Initiative, which advocates against tobacco use, found that 63 percent of Juul users ages 15-24 were not aware the product “always contains nicotine.”
Effects of Vaping
In April, the FDA responded to concerns by announcing an “undercover nationwide blitz to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes—specifically Juul products—to minors at both brick-and-mortar and online retailers.”
The agency also requested data from Juul Labs, the maker of the product, to understand how the product is designed and used and whether its marketing specifically appeals to young people.
“We don’t yet fully understand why these products are so popular among youth,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, said in a statement. “But it’s imperative that we figure it out, and fast. These documents may help us get there.”
Juul Labs responded to those actions by announcing $30 million in prevention efforts targeted to youths, including a push at the state and federal levels to raise the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products to 21.
The San Francisco company also plans to work with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, to “develop a transparent and effective framework for independent research focused on the scientific and societal implications of vapor products.”
“We want to be a leader in seeking solutions, and are actively engaged with, and listening to, community leaders, educators, and lawmakers on how best to effectively keep young people away from Juul,” Juul Labs Chief Administrative Officer Ashley Gould said in a statement.
There’s no research about the long-term effects of vaping. While the cartridges used in vaping devices may contain fewer harmful chemicals than traditional cigarettes, some newer models deliver roughly the same amount of nicotine as a cigarette, creating additional concerns, said Dave Dobbins, the chief operating officer of the Truth Initiative. So while vaping may be less dangerous than smoking, it’s still harmful, he said.
“Jumping off a 10-story building will kill you, and jumping off a two story building will only hurt you,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t recommend doing either.
The organization has added vaping to some of its public awareness efforts. “You’re not going to hear me say this thing is exactly like a cigarette. It’s not,” Dobbins said. “But there are a lot of concerns about it.”
Educators said they are also concerned that the devices can be used to consume marijuana and that some flavor cartridges don’t provide a complete ingredients list, leaving students unsure of what they are inhaling.
“For the longest time, nobody smoked; kids weren’t into that anymore,” said Brad Seamer, the assistant principal of Harrisburg High School in Harrisburg, S.D. “With the vaping, kids are really into that. It’s not a certain kind of kids, it’s a cross-section of my school.”
Seamer says responding to vaping now takes up most of his time. He’s disciplined a student for using a Juul in a classroom. Some parents aren’t aware of their own children’s habits, he said.
A member of the advocacy committee for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Seamer led efforts to update the group’s position statement on smoking to include information about vaping, calling on schools to update rules and prevention efforts.
Why Vaping Is Hard to Detect in Schools
Thompson, the Connecticut principal, said vaping is more discreet than smoking because the vapor leaves less of a trail and the smells are harder to detect. He realized the extent of the problem a few months ago, when he sought to crack down on extended bathroom breaks students were taking.
The school shut down some bathrooms and tracked students’ use of others. In talking to students, Thompson discovered they were experimenting with the products in the school’s facilities and that some considered themselves addicted.
The 900-student school has disciplined about 40 students for vaping this year, Thompson said, issuing in-school suspensions as a consequence, which is the same punishment it uses for smoking.
Thompson recently supplemented that discipline with cessation and counseling efforts to help students quit and to make them aware of potential hazards. He’s also invited community health groups to the school to do presentations for teachers, parents, and students about vaping and nicotine use.
Thompson likened students’ vaping to concerns about social media and cyberbullying that emerged about a decade ago. It took a while for adults to notice the problem, but now they are taking it seriously, he said.
“When you’re dealing with teenagers, they’re way ahead of the curve.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as Schools to Play Catch Up To Rise in Student Vaping